The twelves stories of Matt Cashion’s Last Words of the Holy Ghost, selected by Lee K. Abbott as the winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction in 2015, are populated with dreamers, real people brimming with longing, and marginal characters who are often victims of their own circumstance. They dream of leaving their hometowns, of their first sexual encounters, of repairing a broken relationship and inheriting land, of getting a little peace at the end of their lives. They are always imagining and it’s through that psychic access that they’re recognizable to readers. They are oftentimes desperate characters, but that desperation is craftily tempered with Cashion’s mastery of voice and humor.
Sometimes these stories are laugh-out-loud funny in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or forced, but rather, completely fitting for Cashion’s characters. In “The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time,” a small boy blows up a condom like a balloon, and when asked why he is doing so, he responds, “’What’s a condom?’” In “Awful Pretty,” our middle-aged narrator discovers his “Ma” having a sleepover with the family doctor, who explains away their precarious position: “I was inspecting your mother’s rash, likely caused by an ingrown pubic hair that got infected. I applied some ointment, but we’ll have to keep monitoring the situation.” Grappling with a sexually viable elderly mother is a situation some readers may recognize as familiar, but regardless, it is also rife with humor. In “Chuck Langford Jr., Depressed Auctioneer, Takes Action,” a now sober Chuck attempts to determine how to make amends and settles on wearing a too small T-shirt, which simply states, “I’M SORRY” as a blanket apology for all previous drunken misdeeds:
He planned a proactive approach. He’d simply point to his shirt and smile. And they’d laugh and give him a hug and greet his son and usher them inside and offer them a drink, which Chuck would politely decline, citing his sobriety, which they would congratulate him for.
The characters are fallible, richly nuanced, but most importantly, they’re deeply human and authentic.
Fortunately, Cashion doesn’t overplay his hand with the comedic flourishes. The emotional core of these stories pumps blood until the collection’s heartbeat is an almost audible pulse. In the titular story, young Harold, only fourteen-years-old, makes the decision to be saved in order to win the approval of Rose’s parents so that he might date her. Predictably, his motivations are of the lusty adolescent variety:
Harold had decided that as soon as he got saved and baptized and spoke in tongues, he would buy a calendar so he and Rose could document the number of times per day they had sex and then show it to jealous friends, saying five on this day, six on that day, then he’d yawn because sex would be so common.
And while Harold is a horny teenage boy, he is also deeply self-aware and imagines his own heart as a way to understand the pain of his first heartbreak. Cashion wields the heart as an extended shape-shifting metaphor. Harold describes his heart as a stump, then as “the hole where the stump used to be,” as a lump of coal he wants to set afire, as:
[a] sun-baked trout whose mouth kept moving, spilling final words from the Holy Ghost. A trout whose eyes had turned to scales, who couldn’t cry enough tears to save itself. He wanted to wander through the woods until he found it. He would put it in his pocket, or wear it around his neck, and present it to the first girl who smiled at him.
These ruminations perfectly capture the neediness of adolescent lust and the agonizing abuses from those who are only just learning about romantic love.
At times, it’s as if these stories are asking us: What’s more embarrassing than being a human? Cashion moves us beyond empathy and makes the reader complicit, and it’s easy to see our own human bumbling within these pages. Our auctioneer Chuck Langford Jr. may be depressed, but he also distills a truth about human behavior in social situations. “He’d heard them at too many parties, each person waiting for the end of another person’s monologue so they could launch their own monologue on some unrelated subject that would show off a very different expertise.” There’s commonality in these offhand moments of critique, and it’s the kind of detail that makes the reader feel guilty for having participated in similar behavior.
Cashion also considers the normalcy and routine of tragedy in “The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time,” in which a school decides to drain the pond where a girl has drowned, collect the pond’s fish, and fry them up for a fundraiser. But there is tenderness even in a story that bends toward absurdity. The narrator, Jo, observes that “[s]omeone might eventually recall a fragment of the truth, saying something about the girl who drowned at school that time and then they’d nod and look sad and resume their chewing.” Likewise, in “A Serious Question” Charlotte takes her dying friend, Brother Michael, for a final errand before he moves into an assisted living facility. His final request is a trip to the hellscape that is Walmart on a Saturday morning, but Charlotte has gastrointestinal distress—“shit her pants as the colloquial would have it”—which leads her to an epiphany that changes both their lives. In this way Cashion draws John Cheever and George Saunders to mind, but his dark humor invokes the ghost of Flannery O’Connor and Southern Gothic, as well.
To put it simply, Cashion makes us see his characters for who they truly are. We see Jo watch different versions of herself leave, but she always stays put, acknowledging that “it was just a version of myself and I was still very much there.” In “Penmanship” we see Hank finding arousal in his father’s stash of Playboy magazines: “By the time he got to the last centerfold in the last magazine, and for reasons he didn’t fully understand, he began to lick the bodies on the pages. He felt a little stupid at first. Then he licked again.” Cashion’s characters are caught with their pants down, but there is not the slightest tinge of embarrassment, only candidness. In fact, Cashion delivers a master class on the perfectly chosen mimetic details that allow the reader to know someone in the span of a short story.
About the Reviewer
Jennifer Popa is a short story writer, essayist, and occasional poet. A few years ago she relocated from the interior of Alaska, where she received her MFA, to the South Plains of West Texas where she is now a PhD candidate of English and creative writing at Texas Tech University. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories and teaching creative writing and literature to a bright group of Texas undergrads. Some of Jennifer's most recent writing can be found at KestreI, Pithead Chapel, Juked, decomP, and The Boiler. She can be found at www.jenniferpopa.com.